​There were once plans for nuclear-powered planes

Illustration for article titled ​There were once plans for nuclear-powered planes

Presenting an all-new horror movie: Nuclear Reactors on a Plane! In the 1950s, when nuclear power was still full of promise and wonder, there were plans to make a nuclear-powered aircraft.

In the 1950s, the world was still on the fence regarding nuclear technology. On the one hand, nuclear bombs were powerful weapons. On the other hand, this totally new source of power might be used for nearly anything.

Even nuclear bombs seemed to have possible civilian uses. The military was planning Operation Plowshare, which was meant to test the feasibility of nuclear bombs in everything from excavating mountains to make room for underground cities, to moving aside rock formations to make way for roads, to getting water going for use in hydroelectric power stations. The Nuclear Age was meant to be more than just an era in military history.


And so, it probably shouldn't be a surprise that, in the 1950s, people started thinking about nuclear-powered planes. Nuclear submarines were already a reality. Nuclear planes couldn't be that far off. Some experts calculated that the first nuclear planes would be circling the globe by 1963. These would be military planes, but commercial airlines wouldn't be far behind. Either way, the planes would be able to stay aloft for "weeks and months" at a time and circle the globe "eighty times" in one flight.

This has not been the case. Either no one was interested in improving on jet fuel, or no one was aching to put a nuclear in the air where, potentially, anyone might either grab it or crash it. So, today, we need to content ourselves with jet fuel and stops in Newark to change planes for refueling. Ah, what could have been.

Image: Defense Imagery

[Via The Amazing Weapons that Never Were.]


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They made plans to power a Conair B-36 Peacemaker bomber with a reactor. Scary? Sure, but what's even more so is that they actually flew the plane, with an operational reactor...a total of 47 times.

Shielded reactor that was tested: